Mushroom hunting is not a fringe discipline Poland. It is a main event, one I never expected to join in on, at least not with any rate of success. Attempts at finding a mushroom “on purpose” always led to nowhere, and my limited mycological knowledge was ultimately useless, anyway, even when a mushroom found me. So what if it looks like a king bolete if I don’t know with certainty which other species resemble a king bolete, and which of those might be deadly?
Years into taming the woods at my summer cabin, I am beginning to know what’s worth gathering. More importantly, I’m beginning to spot my prey. (Mushrooming can be said to resemble the carnivorous chase more than a fruit picking session, which fits nicely with the way mushrooms are not plants at all, but rather chitin-rich separatists occupying the fungi kingdom.)
Real, unwavering knowledge of a species resides not in the intellect but in the gut, and it derives not from books but from repeated experience. Holistic, non-analytical and empirical, it follows the logic of impervious certainty. You know you can pick that chanterelle because it is a chanterelle, and only then is it relevant that it is funnel-shaped and deep orange-y yellow, with a scent both woody and reminiscent of apricots, and with gill-like ridges running almost all the way down its sturdy, steadily tapering stipe.
The boletes I dry with Poland’s winter specialties in mind, though I might turn a half-dozen of them (or a few tasty parasol mushrooms) into an artery-clogging white sauce to go with a batch of biscuits. But the chanterelles, invariably, wind up as the star in what Mark Bittman once wrote of as the ultimate in scrambled eggs: an unctuous custard, creamy and rich, stirred over low heat for ages and now stained a light tan from the sautéed chanterelles.
Neither tedious nor boring, mushroom hunting is trance-inducing and highly gratifying. The hunger at the end of the hunt imbues it with titillating purpose, but even better is the way each find is like an addictive video game’s sparkly chime, only real.